SALT LAKE CITY — They're not about to start wearing T-shirts with cigarettes tucked in rolled-up sleeves.
Their tire irons, if they have any, are kept in the trunks of their cars, they still prefer championship rings to brass knuckles, and only Pat Riley greases his hair.
Face it: As long as they keep Dancing Barry around, the Lakers will never project a tough-guy image. But Saturday in the Salt Palace, which usually is as inviting as a dead-end alley in the middle of the night, the Lakers proved that when cornered, they can fight back with the best of them.
They averted a potential mugging by flattening the Utah Jazz, 117-109, for their eighth straight win. They scored the last 15 points of the game--Byron Scott had the last eight--to wipe out Utah's seven-point lead with 3:28 to play.
"This is the first time ever when we've come up here that we haven't been taken out of the game physically by them," said Michael Cooper, who twice challenged Jazz muscleman Karl Malone, an aspiring Mr. Olympia, and lived to tell about it.
"In the past, we've been a little intimidated by them. But we decided to show up and make a stand."
But in order to stand, the Lakers had to be willing to take any number of hard falls as well. There were more body slams in this game than a World Wrestling Federation telethon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mixed in a little boxing, and there was enough woofing for the Westminster Dog Show.
"The first times we drove to the basket we picked ourselves up off the floor each time," Riley said. "They were determined not to give us any layups."
The Lakers, however, were bent on giving no quarter, either, something they collectively decided, Magic Johnson said, after losing three games on their recent East Coast trip.
"We're ready to bang anybody," Johnson said. "They're going to bang, we're going to bang. And we haven't been pushed around since then.
"When you come in and play the Lakers now, you're going to find a Laker team different from any Laker team before."
And when this Laker team pushed back, the Jazz--despite 5-of-5 three-point shooting by Kelly Tripucka, who was making his first start of the season--backed down. Utah failed to score in its last nine possessions. Tripucka missed two open jumpers and threw a pass away, and five times the Jazz got only one shot at the basket, with the Lakers rebounding each time.
While the Lakers showed mettle, Malone--who finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds--accused his teammates of revealing tin hearts.
"The Lakers are a great team, they do everything it takes to win," Malone said.
"I question some of the hearts on this team. Down the stretch, everybody folded up, and that's not the mark of a great team.
"I'm not pointing any fingers, we've got to stay together, but some of our guys don't show any heart. They know who they are."
Utah Coach Frank Layden said Malone was merely wearing his heart on his sleeve.
"We didn't fold," he said. "Today we played, to me, about as well as we could. They're just a better team than we are.
"And I think we got tired from catching up."
The Jazz, with Tripucka burying three-pointers, went on an 18-4 run of its own to overtake the Lakers, 94-83, with 10:40 to go.
But to Layden, the game wasn't won down the stretch, but in the last few minutes of the first half, when the Lakers outscored Utah, 12-4, to take a 60-59 lead. That lead was fashioned by Magic Johnson's three-pointer with a second to go.
"Right then, that's when they took back the initiative, took back the momentum," Layden said. "They showed there that they weren't going to let us run right over them."
How physical was this game?
"It was like a midnight love affair," Cooper said. "You know, when you walk around at night and bump into walls? Today, you'd bump into (Mark) Eaton, Malone, Tripucka, people like that.
"Sitting on the bench, watching the game, I could see us getting hammered, crunched, killed. It was time to give some back to them."
Leave it to Cooper to dish some back to the 6-foot 9-inch, 260-pound Malone, who wants to be a professional body builder someday. Twice, Cooper challenged him, going airborne to foul him on an attempted jam, and taking a charge on another Malone power drive to the basket.
A Purple Heart for valor?
"Insanity," Riley said with a smile.
In years past, said Johnson--who finished with 25 points and 14 assists--Malone would have been given free passage for a monster dunk. No more.
"Now we're like every other team," he said. "A no-layup rule. Before we concede the layup, we'll take a foul."
The Lakers, amazingly enough, did not attempt a free throw in the fourth quarter until Scott--who finished with a team-leading 26 points--went to the line with 13 seconds left.
But near-perfect ballhandling--the Lakers committed a season-low six turnovers--as well as some strong play on the offensive boards--Abdul-Jabbar and Mychal Thompson had four offensive rebounds apiece--kept the Lakers within range until they went for the kill.